I’m sitting in CU 311 and Ben Parham walks in and we start talking about writing and our conversation takes a right and then a left and now we’re discussing the “zone”.
I say, “And there are moments when you’re just in it and the words are coming from outer space and you’re writing what you’re supposed to write.”
Parham says, “Yeah, man. I know it. The keys are falling by themselves, man. The words just come.”
“Yes yes yes…”
And we go on like that: in the zone talking about the “zone”.
I know it exists. I know it exists because I’ve felt it. I know it exists because I experience it. I’ll be writing through a piece, struggling with a piece, when suddenly I’ll be struck. The keys will begin to fall. The feeling that is in my head, that is in my heart, will travel through the ether and appear on the page. The little blinking cursor—something I’ve heard Christopher Irving describe as a “virtual heartbeat”—will race across the screen and I will begin to write beyond my capability. In these moments it is as if I have learned to write for the first time. All of my intentions, once shrouded by a cloud of self-consciousness and apprehension, can now announce themselves. It is not a question of their existence—the message was always there. It is just a matter of relieving the constipation of words. Sometimes the space we write through becomes alarmingly narrow.
I know this phenomenon exists. I know it exists because my peers describe it: Katrina Gersie is pacing her little West Boca bedroom and muttering to no one. So enthralled by her argument, she discusses it with herself before rushing back to the keys so that they can type themselves. Ben Parham sees a scene in his mind. He has the characters and he has the situation and even though he does not know the scene’s importance, he begins to type it and the scene comes; the scene types itself. It is only weeks later that he finds that he has been writing toward that very scene for months. Brittany Ackerman describes it like this: “It’s like runner’s high. It’s like going on a very long run. Like hitting a stride in the last mile.”
Perhaps I am too content to mystify the writing process. Some might think me infinitely naïve to assign such magical properties to writing that, as we certainly contend in our MFA program, can be taught. But I know what I know. And there are moments when the words come without struggle, without thought of rules or form. I also know that when I submit a story to workshop in which this mysterious phenomenon has occurred, my peers almost invariably receive my story well. In these instances, though, I am less confident in my product. It is as if I do not really know what I have done. What have I written? What is this thing?
This is why, in workshop, I always get more out of positive feedback because, perhaps without knowing it, my peers are identifying the moments in which I have written from the “zone”. They are like archaeologists identifying the fossilized remnants of my communication with the fourth dimension. Their critiques only bolster my belief in the mysteriousness of writing. I have no choice. I must believe. My best writing seems to come from the “zone”.
It is this reason that I think the workshop should be the space that we work to recognize the moments that our peers have entered the “zone”. Visiting writer Nick Flynn referred to these portions of text as “moments of energy”. It is these instances that writers should be encouraged to embrace. Our job in the workshop should be to inspire confidence in the intangible element that makes a writer’s words sing. That is not to say the workshop should be devoid of criticism. But I think we can admit that our criticism, however precise or confident, is probably not going to be the catalyst for a successful piece if it leaves the writer doubting the natural ability that got them a seat in AH 104.
It is helpful, of course, to be directed to the problem areas in a text. Yet, it seems it would be more helpful to point out areas in the text in which the writer has tapped into some greater pool of knowledge. Without this emphasis, the workshop can be too hard a pill to swallow—the writer’s mind is such a self-defeating place that it is tempting to look at an unsuccessful 5,000 word essay or story as a waste. But I think that, sometimes, one has to write 5,000 words to get to the next 5,000 words. The workshop should contain enough generosity and graciousness to instill the confidence necessary to attack the next piece. The workshop should act as a kind of rallying point for our written explorations.
Because all of us have to sit down at our desks and stare at our little virtual heartbeats and attempt to unclog the words bottlenecked in the narrow space between our souls and brains. And we will continue to pound the keys in a desperate hope that we will be transported into the place where the keys fall by themselves. It is in this world that the words unravel in perfect, unexpected threads.
Donovan Ortega is a second year MFA who, despite not having health insurance, is pretty sure everything is going to be OK. He is currently training to be a professional swimmer (he can do forty laps in a small, community pool) and plans to represent the United States of America in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics. He is brushing up on his Japanese by watching Mushi-Shi, a contemplative Manga series adapted for television. He has yet to stay awake for an entire episode.